Yesterday I had the unexpected pleasure of watching The Reader, an incredibly moving and thought provoking movie produced in 2008 - starring Kate Winslet, Ralph Finnes, and the relatively unknown David Kross. If you get a chance to watch it, I highly recommend it.
Oddly enough, I came across the movie by sheer coincidence. Whenever I watch baseball, I always select a second channel to flip to during the commercials. The Reader was featured on Starz, so I thought, what the heck. Anyway, during the first commercial I flipped to the movie and got so hooked I never got back to the game.
The Reader (in German, "Der Vorleser") is based on an award winning book of the same name written by Bernhard Schlink and first published in Germany in 1995. I haven't read the book, but the wikipedia article on it is quite detailed. By way of a surprisingly original plot, the book deals with participation of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust - and the extreme difficulty of later generations of Germans to understand or accept the reasons why.
Critics of the book say that Herr Schlink is trying to offer an implausible and superficial excuse: that many Germans who played peripheral roles in the Holocaust were just simple, non-bigoted and often illiterate - who childishly considered their participation to be nothing more or less than performing the jobs they were paid to do. This is a fairly thoughtful step beyond the ordinary "I was only following orders...", or "No one knew what was going on..." justifications.
Kate Winslet's mastery her role is breathtaking. On trial as a concentration camp guard, she perfectly expresses the moral bewilderment of a common person forced to gradually absorb the horror her own guilt. The camp at which she was a guard was not a death camp, but hundreds of prisoners died tragically while in her care. For this, she ultimately accepted blame, but not before innocently posing some morally difficult questions to the judges.
"It was my job." She said. "What would you have done?" And the head judge was momentarily struck dumb.
What indeed. What would we have done - you and I that is, Steve. Sitting up here on the bank and watching someone else fight the crocodiles, it seems like an easy question to answer. But to me that question involves a great deal more than how we view ourselves as moral beings. Perhaps morality is not just about drawing lines between right and wrong, but relying on convenient ways to justify our own worth and purpose - which often obscure those lines.
I'm absolutely certain there are more than enough conscious, self-acknowledged racists in any country, including this one, to pull the switches at all the gas chambers of some modern day version of the Holocaust. But what about the more common and less connected work of erecting the fences, building the barracks, and guarding the prisoners? Or, more pointedly, what about the millions more who lack the moral clarity to hold up their hands and say "Stop!", before we reach the precipice?
Are we among them?
Now that's a disturbing question....